Students create unique grand piano keyboard sculpture

May 1, 2014
Opus 88 sculpture
Opus 88 sculpture

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — A unique, 6-foot-wide, ceramic sculptural interpretation of a Steinway concert grand piano keyboard and mural have been installed in the University of Wisconsin-Platteville's Center for the Arts. The sculpture is titled “Opus 88.”

The ceramic sculpture and mural are the result of a collaborative effort of two UW-Platteville students, Robert Jinkins, a senior art major from Rewey, Wis., and John O'Sullivan, a senior business administration major from Stewartville, Minn., and UW-Platteville art lecturer Bruce Howdle, who is also the owner of Howdle Studios Inc., in Mineral Point, Wis.

The sculptural interpretation of the piano keyboard was designed and created by Howdle, who was commissioned by the university to create the piece for the Center for the Arts as a way to acknowledge individuals who support the university's Steinway Fund. The Steinway Fund was developed by UW-Platteville’s College of Liberal Arts and Education and the UW-Platteville Foundation to help raise financial support for the continued financing of the university’s new Steinway “D” concert grand piano, a handmade piano purchased at the Steinway and Sons factory in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., in January 2013.

The piano enriches every aspect of the university’s music program, from large performing ensembles such as the concert bands, orchestra, jazz bands and choirs to small chamber music collaborations and solo recitals.

"When I spoke with Bruce about his vision for the sculpture, my thoughts went to Modest Mussorgsky and his ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ a piano composition that depicts paintings and drawings,” said Michael Breitner, director of the Center for the Arts at UW-Platteville. “Here, Bruce has used a visual medium to depict music and I think our patrons will enjoy this interesting sculpture. It also gives the university an opportunity to recognize those who have donated to the Steinway Fund.”

Howdle began the creative process by planning and drawing the design of the piece, with input from Jinkins and O’Sullivan. Once the design was approved by the university’s music department and the department had selected the pianists that would be featured in the sculpture’s mural, Howdle formed the keyboard out of clay, fired it in a kiln, hollowed it, glazed it, put on the finishing touches, then fired it again.

“The shape and design of this sculpture was very important to me,” said Howdle. “I wanted the keyboard to be a three-dimensional representation of the rhythms inherent in music. To represent the rise and fall of musical rhythms, I sculpted the keyboard with a wavy surface. I hope that the design allows people to imagine the sensation of waves washing over them and pulling at them, just as beautiful music washes over us and pulls at our souls.”

The sculpture’s mural features portraits of prominent pianists Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov, sketched by Jinkins.

Jinkins spent at least 20 hours on the drawings, working from photographs of the composers. “Being an artist is about finding the essence of the person or place portrayed, expressing your own personal feelings as well as the facts,” said Jinkins. “I have a deep appreciation of classical music and tried to incorporate what I had learned about the composers so that the essence of who they were was portrayed in the sketches.”

O'Sullivan designed the layout of the mural’s background collage of piano sheet music, which frames the portraits. As donations to the Steinway Fund are received, O’Sullivan will digitally print and fire donor names onto tiles that will be artistically and aesthetically incorporated into the sculpture.

“In addition to the sheer beauty of the piece created in such a wonderfully collaborative way between a professor and his students, the design process for this piece allowed the college to explore technical innovations, such as a unique printer that will provide us with new ways to promote donors’ generosity,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Throop, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education.  “Professor Howdle researched the practical applications of this piece and presented a number of options to me. The results are astounding!”

“I wanted students to be involved in the making and designing of this important work,” said Howdle. “As an art teacher, I am an artistic guide as well as an instructor. My job is to help students develop the confidence they need to create unique artwork that expresses their individuality and brings beauty and meaning to public spaces.”

“Working on this sculpture gave Robert and John a creative experience that will last a lifetime, a legacy they will be proud of,” said Howdle. “The function of art is to add quality to life and the purpose of any sculpture or piece of art is to enhance the space in which it resides with the spirit of the human being who created it.”

Contact: Bruce Howdle, Department of Performing and Visual Arts, (608) 342-1228,
Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191,


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Opus 88 Art Installation

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